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The Symbolism of Lions

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Conveying bravery and awe, lions have been appropriated since the earliest times as gods and symbols of leadership. They have also been co-opted into the service of commerce and subjected to numerous affronts to their stateliness.

Lions in the Ancient World

To the ancient Mesopotamians Gilgamesh was a powerful figure who may have been a king. In an epic poem about his reign he strangled a magical lion with his bare hands. Also, the god Lamassu was shown as a winged lion while the goddess of love, Inanna-Ishtar, had a lion as one of her symbols.

One of the 12 labours of the Greek god Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) was to kill the Nemean lion, a creature of incredible ferocity. It's fur was so strong no knife or spear could penetrate it, but Heracles, channelling Gilgamesh, dispatched the beast by strangling it.

Lions were also mythologized by the Greeks as drawing the chariots of a variety of deities, and acting as protectors of homes.

An ancient mosaic of Heracles strangling his feline adversary.

An ancient mosaic of Heracles strangling his feline adversary.

The Ancient Egyptians also venerated the lion; the Sphinx statue at Giza has the head of a man and the body of a lion. Egyptians also represented the goddess Sekhmet as a lion whose task was to destroy the wicked and protect the good.

The Bible contains several stories involving lions, such as Daniel in the lion's den while Samson does a Gilgamesh and Heracles by killing a lion with his hands. Then, there's the story of Saint Mark being fed to lions but the animals refused to eat the proffered meal and curled up at the feet of the evangelist.

As time went by, lions passed from religious iconography into the hands of royalty.

Roman gladiators were pitted against lions that did not benefit from impenetrable coats but still the combat usually went the lion's way.

The English Lion

The English seized the lion as their national symbol and heraldic device even though the animals, as we know them today, never lived there.

The royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom has nine lions, the most prominent being the left supporter. The right supporter is a unicorn, a beast that remains in seclusion and only appears during elections when politicians promise voters they will each get one.

England's Royal Coat of Arms.

England's Royal Coat of Arms.

With lions having the reputation of majesty, courage, and strength, British monarchs seized on their image.

King Henry I (reigned from 1100-1135) seems to have been the first royal to have recognized the branding power of the lion. Known as the Lion of England, Henry put the animal on his standard to encourage his soldiers in battle. He married Adeliza of Louvain, whose family used the lion motif, so a second cat was added to the banner.

King Henry II (reigned from 1154-1189) married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose family also put lions on their crest, so a third one went on the banner. They stopped there and today when English soccer, cricket, and other teams take to a pitch they wear a badge with three lions on it.

Charlotte Edwards of England's Women's Cricket Team with the three-lion emblem on her helmet and jersey.

Charlotte Edwards of England's Women's Cricket Team with the three-lion emblem on her helmet and jersey.

Then, along came Richard I. History.uk tells us that “All English school children learn about this great king who reigned from 1189-1199. He earned the title ‘Coeur-de-Lion’ or ‘Lion Heart’ as he was a brave soldier . . .” and his first great seal depicts a lion standing on two legs (rampant).

But, Richard wasn't much of a king. He was more interested in going on crusades to kill people because they followed a different religion from Christianity.

Richard only spent a few months of his decade-long time on the throne actually in England and once said he would sell the country if a buyer came forward. Yet, somehow, he's still regarded with reverence in history classrooms.

In June 2015, Katherine Chappell (29) of Rye, New York was killed by a lion while on a safari in South Africa, reminding everyone that lions are carnivorous predators and humans are potential food. Smithsonian Magazine reports that “Tanzania has the highest population of lions in Africa, and between 1990 and 2004, the country saw 593 deaths and 308 injuries from African lion attacks.”

The Lion as a Marketing Tool

Manufacturers have shamelessly recruited lions as a sales tool; well, they're not going to use snakes, spiders, or rats are they?

  • The Lion Motor Car Company of Adrian, Michigan, was a short-lived—1909-1912—foray into the growing automobile business. A fire pretty much finished off the business;
  • Nothing says sexy like panties with the printed image of a crowned lion—made by VARuTreasures in Latvia;
  • Lion Nathan that brews beer in Australia and New Zealand makes the obvious connection in its name, however, Lion Beer in South Africa can make a stronger claim to an association with the king of the jungle, if for no other region than its brewery is not far from where real, wild lions live;
  • Indonesia's Lion Air had the misfortune to be the first carrier to discover that the Boeing 737 Max had a serious design flaw;
  • Lion cereal is from Nestlé—it has “A unique combination of chocolate and caramel created to feed your wild hunger.” Is there also cereal?;
  • You can “elevate your shower experience” with Iron Lion Soap;
  • Food Lion of Salisbury, North Carolina offers its branded Lion Breakfast Sausages that, so far as we know, contain no lion meat; and,
  • Somebody dreamed up and then manufactured a neon red lion planter. Has a greater indignity ever been visited on such a noble animal? Say it isn't so. It's so.
At the time of writing, Etsy says this abomination is "unavailable."

At the time of writing, Etsy says this abomination is "unavailable."

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) has used eight roaring lions (the first one didn't roar) as a trademark since the first one was employed in 1924. The studio, of course, made the movie adaptation of L. Frank Baum's children's story The Wizard of Oz that featured the character the Cowardly Lion. Insecure, he learns to believe in himself and become a courageous animal.

C.S. Lewis gave us Aslan in his Narnia book series. He is the king of the realm, he is kindly and the epitome of justice and goodness.

George R.R. Martin gave the lion a more sinister treatment in A Song of Ice and Fire, the first novel in his Game of Thrones series. The Lannister family have a golden lion, rampant, on a crimson background as its emblem, depicting a lust for power and corruption.

Kimba, the White Lion is an anime series that came out of Japanese manga comics in the 1960s. He is orphaned when his father is killed by hunters and must learn to be a just and kind ruler at a young age. Some years later, another animated, lion-themed story with similar plot devices became a mega hit.

In The Lion King, (1994) Disney gave us a duality of lion behaviour with the kindly and wise Mufasa and the evil, conniving Scar. Mufasa's son, Simba, defeats Scar and peace and harmony return to the land in which lions eat gazelles and the “circle of life” continues. Some observers have commented that the story is a metaphor for capitalism, others that it was borrowed from Kimba.

In general, popular culture treats lions well, but, as actor Hugh Laurie points out, they still have sharp teeth and claws.

Hot to Deal with a Charging Lion

Bonus Factoids

  • The roar of a lion can be heard at a distance of five miles.
  • The sixth most common surname in the world is Singh. It is a Hindi word meaning “lion” and is adopted by Sikhs as a suffix to their name. Its origin goes back to 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh told followers to adopt the name as a way of creating a courageous community by emulating the bravery of the lion.
  • According to animalsake.com, “The genus Panthera includes lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and snow leopards. There are eight species of lions, the one that is the subject of this article, Panthera leo, is found only in sub-Saharan Africa. A century ago there were approximately 200,000 lions in Africa; today, their numbers have declined to about 20,000.

In a subsequent poem, we learn that Wallace is overcome by remorse at what he has done so he spits out Albert. The lad returns home safe and sound just as Mr. Ramsbottom is about to happily collect the insurance on his son.

Sources

  • “Richard Lionheart.” Ben Johnson, historic-uk.com, November 5, 2016
  • “The Surprising History of England’s Three Lions.” Dominic Selwood, The Spectator, July 7, 2021.
  • “6 Spiritual Meanings Of Lion.” Miller's Guild, undated.
  • “5 Famous Lions from Popular Culture.” worldanimaloprotection.org.au, January 3, 2021.
  • “8 Different Species of Lions with Pictures.” animalsake.com, undated.
  • “Yes, Lions Will Hunt Humans if Given the Chance.” Helen Thompson, Smithsonian Magazine, June 5, 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor